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Destination Europe


Dear CareerDoctor,

I am in the final year of my biochemistry degree, and once I've graduated I want to work in a lab abroad. But so far I've had little luck in figuring out how I could do this. Do you know of jobs abroad as a lab assistant, trainee, or the like? I don't want to do further studying or a Ph.D. yet but would like to actually earn some money!

I should leave York with a 2:1 (fingers crossed!). I spent a sandwich year studying in France, so I speak French well. I would work anywhere; really, I'm just looking for the excitement of somewhere new. However, Europe appeals more than North America.

I'd also be interested in working for companies in the U.K. that offer travel opportunities as part of the job or that have branches or affiliations abroad.


Dear Kate,

Given the recent expansion of the European Union, your question is very timely, and I have found a number of resources designed to facilitate the mobility of skilled people around Europe. I've also found individual opportunities almost everywhere I've looked, but it is true that, like you, I expected to find more help available. I have some ideas for you on how you can boost your chances, but you should be prepared for your search for an overseas job to be somewhat laborious. So my first suggestion is that for now you should concentrate on your revision and wait until your exams are out of the way before you devote yourself to your hunt for a job.

Meanwhile, I'll give you some advice on the four key hurdles I've identified along your path to a scientific job elsewhere in Europe:

  • Recognition of your degree

  • Understanding foreign recruitment practices

  • Competition with local candidates

  • Finding vacancies.

I should start by warning you that U.K. graduates are the "babies" of Europe, as they can graduate aged just 21, a couple of years younger than the European average. As such, your U.K. degree may be perceived as having less value. You may need to accept a position at a lower level than other European graduates, so beware of getting stuck in a rut. If this happens, ask about progression and performance reviews and be ready to move on if you are condemned to washing up the glassware!

In any case, be prepared to defend the level of your qualification and ensure that your application is in the accepted format of that country. For example, in France your qualification may be equivalent to a Licence or a Maîtrise. The latter requires an extra year's studying, so if you can show that your British qualification is equivalent to this, rather than a Licence, it will give you a better chance of securing a graduate-level job. Having said that, your year in France gives you a definite advantage, even more so if you decide to go back there. You may have received a French university diploma or be able to get a reference from a French academic, which will considerably improve your appeal to employers.

To help you understand employment cultures and recruitment practices in different countries, I'll refer you to three very useful sources of information: Hobson's Careers in Europe Guide 2004 ; Eurograduate, which includes articles on life sciences careers across Europe; and Expertise in Labour Mobility's Looking for Work in ? guide series.

All of these will help you articulate the equivalence of your qualification and market yourself against indigenous candidates, giving you all the tips and tricks you need, plus a sample CV in some cases. I also recommend you look into the European Researcher's Mobility Portal for links to relevant sites and local assistance. Finally, Careers Europe is the U.K. National Resource Centre for International Careers Information. It is based in Bradford, and a trip to their offices should lead to additional suggestions.

You can minimise these first three hurdles by actually starting your search for vacancies in the United Kingdom, looking for international or foreign companies with a particular interest in British graduates. Your careers service will be able to help you with that, and I myself took a trip to Heriot-Watt University Careers Service (my local university), where I was guided through a mass of information. Careers Services constantly receive details of jobs and employment schemes and events, so I didn't just rely on what I found on the shelves; I spoke to one of the career advisers, Jeanette Graham.

She recalled three recent notices relevant to scientists interested in working abroad: a list of opportunities in a French research institute; the Leonardo da Vinci work experience scheme, which is open to graduates and could get you a foot in the door, and finally, 40-week placements in the biological sciences for graduates currently based in the West Midlands. (If you are eligible, e-mail D. Hoole for details soon, as the closing date is 1 June ; this is my one exception to waiting until after exams!) These all illustrate the fact that employers, even from abroad, see careers services as the obvious way to approach graduates.

As well as looking at the job ads and employer profiles in Eurograduate and the Careers in Europe Guide 2004, I found a number of books you may find useful too. As an example I browsed through The Directory of Jobs and Careers Abroad by Dan Boothby and found details of national employment Web sites in European countries, even though none was specific to science. I was really impressed with the help I received, so I'd suggest that once you've recovered from your postexam celebrations, you make a visit to the careers service at York a priority! Most advisers will specialise in particular subject areas, but in your case you'll need expertise from two areas--languages and science--so talk to both advisers to get full benefit.

Your question anticipates my second suggestion on how to find vacancies abroad; you could indeed get employed by an international company through the usual U.K. graduate recruitment programme. Most large companies have overseas divisions, but you need to be certain that any promises of travel are concrete rather than vague possibilities. Sadly, golden promises of exotic locations often drop in priority once you start work.

A more reliable way to ensure you end up working in Warsaw rather than Walsall may be to ask the U.K. recruitment departments of international companies about graduate vacancies in other countries; get the names of their overseas counterparts and any insider tips on how to make the application. To meet U.K. recruiters, you'll need to start your travelling early; there is a scientific recruitment fair in London in June, so find out who will be there and if it is worth the trip. Your careers service will know of other events.

Another possibility is to make speculative applications. Look at the Web sites of U.K. pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies for details of overseas bases they may have. You'll also find potential employers "off the beaten track" in science parks, as these usually offer incentives to smaller and emerging companies in the form of reduced rent or business funding. I've found international and European lists of science parks as well as the Web site for the International Association of Science Parks.

I warn you that making speculative applications is a lengthy process and one that most people won't have the tenacity to undertake, so look at the hurdles as an advantage as they are reducing the competition. Also remember that you'll be far more successful if you can build links with potential employers through your network. Have you talked to your lecturers about your plans? They may be in touch with former students or research partners in industry who are working in this field--both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere--and may know of relevant companies and recruitment Web sites or have advice on international science careers.

Should you decide to go back to France, you also have a ready-made network of young scientists there: your former classmates. They should be aware of the best Web sites and publications for scientific recruitment and will probably have advice on how to identify and approach employers. As an example, I spoke to a French Ph.D. student based in the United Kingdom, and he suggested Biodocs, a French-language Web site that advertises many jobs in the biological sciences. These are mainly for Ph.D.s, but the site will give you a list of relevant employers.

I would also like to mention here the Association Bernard Gregory (ABG), which primarily supports Ph.D. students. Even though you are not considering a Ph.D. in the short term, you may be planning to do one after a year or two of industrial experience, and the ABG may be willing to offer advice and links to French employers if you explain that your desire to work in Europe is part of a strategy to build a successful European research career. As I've explained in previous columns, I feel having a Ph.D. may benefit both your initial career steps in research and long-term prospects.

Keep looking at Next Wave for news from around Europe that may lead to opportunities. For example, details of a tax break for emerging companies in France could persuade them to take on a keen, well-informed young scientist. Other European Science Bytes recently carried details of an online service launched in February by the European Molecular Biology Organization, which includes job opportunities. You should also register for e-mail alerts on jobs with as many relevant careers sites as you can to ensure that nothing slips through the net, but don't rely on these to find your job, just to do some of the searching for you.

Now, as you are itching to get across to Europe, perhaps you should just go for it! This may be the most effective way to find a job and is going to be my final suggestion. Get back in touch with the friends you made during your year out and plan a trip back to France and anywhere else you can arrange accommodation. Plan an itinerary that will take you to careers services (many European universities have these, but check in advance that they are willing to see you or at least let you use their information libraries), careers fairs (the Hobson guide I mentioned earlier lists sources of information on these, and keep an eye on the Next Wave events calendar), and potential employers.

Try to arrange appointments in advance, and if they don't have vacancies, try not to be put off; ask if it is possible to meet and discuss recruitment in the sector to build your awareness for the future. There is plenty of advice about informational interviewing and networking on Next Wave and the GRAD Web site.

Finally, Kate, I want to highlight that the lack of an easy solution to your problem could actually be the greatest career boost. You have a chance here to start your career in an innovative and challenging way. The growth of Europe and the E.U.'s commitment to R&D will lead to many more opportunities for scientists in the next 15 years, but only those who have the language skills and personal attributes to work effectively in different cultures. I'm confident that securing a scientific position on the Continent despite these hurdles will prove to be a springboard to long-term success.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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